How many of you like to wait? That’s what I thought!
We hate to wait. And I’m not just talking about that traffic light down there at the bridge by the batting cages and driving range.
One of my earliest memories at Christmas was my dad taking me to the department store to see Santa and when we got there, the line was out the door! My dad said, "Do you want to stand here a long time to see Santa or go get a present right now!" My dad hated to wait….
We are a city and a people in waiting. We’re waiting to see if UC will make the final four in college football. We’re waiting for a winning professional team – in any sport! We’re waiting for a new Brent Spence bridge to be built… to see what we get for Christmas, and then we’ll wait for that January credit card bill to come! We’re waiting to see how long JT grows that beard and our staff team were waiting to see when Allen Cruz and Sarah Young were going to get married - and they did yesterday!!
But we’re also waiting for some significant things, too. We’re waiting for COVID to finally pass, waiting to see how high inflation goes, for the supply chain to ease up, and wondering/waiting to see who will run for president in three years (I can’t wait for us to all be divided again!). And this week, we’re waiting to see what that new variant from South Africa will do!
To wait is to be human. We wait because something is missing that we think will make things better. And the longer we wait, the harder it is to maintain joy… and wonder! And that’s what our new Advent series is all about. How can we keep the wonder in all this waiting? The people living (and waiting) in the Bible for a messiah figured it out. They were able to Wonder as they Waited.
This weekend, we want to focus on some kings who can teach us powerful things if we are humble enough to listen and learn. They were waiting for the Messiah, which led to wandering, which led to worship. But one of those kings was also worrying about that new Messiah. We’re introduced to them in Matthew 2:1-2, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Strange men… with a strange question. Who are they? Where did they come from? Were there just three of them? Were they all men? Someone asked, “Do you know what would have happened if it had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men?” They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be Peace On Earth.
Well, these guys show up, stir up turmoil with the local authorities, leave their gifts, and disappear never to be heard from again. As characters in the original Christmas story go, their 15 minutes of fame is somewhat perplexing. It says these magi were from the east seeking Jesus. And this would have been a loonngg trip. Can you imagine their neighbor’s reaction back home?
"Whatcha packing up for?" Going on a journey…
“Where are you going?” We don’t know for sure.
“How far is it?” We don’t know that either.
“How long are you gonna be gone?” Well, were not quite sure about that either.
“For wise men, you sure don’t know much do you?!”
But these wise guys, who followed starry skies, did know a lot about Wonder in the Waiting…
The earliest historical records tell us the magi were a group from the people known as the Medes. They were active throughout Babylonia/Persia during much of the Old Testament era. The religion of the magi was primarily based on sorcery, wizardry, and astrology. Our word magic comes from their name. But they were not magicians pulling rabbits out of hats, they were kingmakers putting people in power.
They were considered the scholars of their time—hence, the label “wise men." Their teachings became known as “the law of the Medes and the Persians." It was seen as the highest, unalterable legal code. So in addition to being the voice of religion, they served as scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and legal authorities. Our word magistrate is another direct descendent of the root word magi. They acted as advisers to kings, interpreting dreams and divining wisdom through their occult magic.
Many scholars think these wise men became interested in Jewish worship and life through an Old Testament prophet named Daniel (look him up sometime – he has a book named after him). Daniel wound up in Babylon when the Jewish nation was taken into captivity in 587 B.C. and Daniel was chosen to serve in the court of the king of Persia, a guy named Nebuchadnezzar, along with some other magi/wise men.
Daniel interpreted a dream for the king that saved the lives of all the other magi. As a result, Daniel became very popular around the magi water cooler. They saw him coming, “Daniel, my man! Give me some rock!” Daniel was elevated after this and was made master of the magi. And knowing Daniel’s character and devotion to God, we can be certain he would have taken advantage of this opportunity to instruct the magi about the true God and the prophecies that a messiah was on the way and to watch for him. I believe that’s how and why the Magi were watching the skies for signs of a coming king.
Since these men were of tremendous influence and power at the time of Christ, when they show up, Herod was understandably troubled. Look at Matthew 2:3… "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him."
Now, try to imagine this scene. These men arrived in Jerusalem no doubt, with a great deal of pomp and show. Their typical garb would have included long, cone-shaped hats like those we associate with wizards. This is Harry Potter meets Jesus!
They would have been riding, NOT on camels, but more likely Persian steeds or Arabian horses. They likely would have been traveling with a small army – especially with the treasures they had, and they must have been an imposing sight. Herod’s army was likely consumed with the duties of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. This is not a great time for a band of foreign kingmakers to be inquiring about an infant they called “King of the Jews." That was, after all, Herod’s title, given to him by Caesar Augustus himself at his coronation in 40 B.C. It was a title the Jews hated because (a) He was not a Jew by birth and (b) he was not a Jew by religion.
So, no wonder he was troubled. Matthew used a Greek word that means “shaken” or “agitated” - like the heavy-duty cycle of a washing machine. He was SHOOK! And so we see here, three wise men, and one old fool! Matthew 2:4-6… "When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel."
In those days you didn’t have Google or Siri to get an answer. You had to ask a wise man, priest or teacher of the law for an answer. They were literally walking encyclopedias. And they would be required to give an appropriate answer if their king asked a question. So that’s what Herod does here and once he gets the answer, he plays it real cool. He slyly decided to let these guys do his undercover work for him like a smooth criminal. Matthew 2:7-8… "Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I, too, may go and worship him.”
Let’s talk about Herod (another king) for a moment. Do you know what the name Herod means? It means “Hero.” How ironic is that, because there was absolutely nothing heroic about him anywhere in his history as a leader or human being. The only worthwhile thing he ever did was build a temple, and even that was done to buy political favor. History calls him Herod the Great. A more appropriate name would be Herod the Murderer.
And like all despots, he was intoxicated with power – having it and keeping it, and he brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed and executed dozens of people. Look it up sometime. He killed his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, (be careful now!) his sons, and even his wife as he was convinced they were threats. No wonder Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod’s sow, than his son.”
He was THE BUTCHER OF BETHLEHEM. He was Hitler, Stalin, Norman Bates, Darth Vader, Thanos, and the Grinch all rolled into one. Human life meant nothing to him. Killing was what he did best. So it is no surprise that Matthew tragically says this in Matthew 2:16… "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi."
Can you even imagine the grief and pain of this horrific act?! Back to Matthew 2:9-10… "After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed."
The Wise Men saw this wonderful star that lead them to Jesus. Ever wondered why Herod couldn’t see it? Now you know. He was blinded to it by his paranoia, greed, and self-centeredness. Sin cuts the optic nerve of the soul. I can’t see… But this star must have been amazing!
Every Christmas the planetariums and astronomers offer explanations of the Christmas star. Some say it must have been Jupiter, or a comet, or a combination of the two, or some other natural phenomenon. No one knows, but whatever the star was, they were overjoyed because it brought them to the promised one! The next verse, Matthew 2:11 is packed with stuff… "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
This tradition and desire to give something to someone during the holidays can be traced directly back to these waiting, wonder-full magi who bestow expensive gifts on Jesus.
But the waiting of these wise guys pays off (usually does, huh!?). And did you notice the four things they did in their wonder? The same four things we should do, too, if we are wise this Christmas. They bowed, worshipped, opened their treasures, and gave gifts.
This is astounding and amazing! God in his grace, led pagan men out of pagan religion in a pagan land, and they found themselves face to face with the Savior of the world. He still does, by the way!
And the gifts they brought and gave had special significance, too. Gold (the most precious metal known to man – even then) would be a gift for a king. WHICH Jesus was. Frankincense, an expensive fragrance, was a gift for a priest. HE WAS THAT, TOO! And Myrrh, a curious gift for a baby because it was a substance used in embalming the dead. Bring a bottle of embalming fluid to the next baby shower you’re invited to, and I promise you, you won’t have to go to another one! You won’t see “myrrh” on the Babies-R-Us gift registry. But this would have been a gift for someone born to die!
Even their gifts testified to the newborn King’s royalty, deity, and His death on behalf of humanity. It also surely helped assist Joseph and Mary financially, so they could escape to Egypt and spare the Christ child which they would soon do. Giving does bring joy to both the giver and the receiver. I’ve experienced that on both ends.
I was playing golf a few years ago and one of the guys I was playing with had a new driver. On the last hole, I asked him if I could hit it and he said SURE. I hit it and it was the best Tee shot I hit all day. I said, "Man, I’m gonna have to get one of these." He said, "Here take it." Really?! I was touched by his spontaneous act of generosity. He said, "No problem - I’ve got plenty of others." I said, "Thanks! I actually like that new car you’re driving too…"
What gifts will you give this year? (Besides the ones you bought online a couple of days ago!) Consider giving some gifts of Wonder while you’re waiting this advent season.
Let me give you a few examples…
How about the gift of touch? Appropriate, God-honoring touch. You will never know what a holy hug, handshake, or pat on the back can do. Especially in a COVID-oriented environment. Listen, in a high tech world, you need a high-touch church. Someone you know is waiting for that.
How about the gift of time? Tim is the most valuable gift to give by the way, because you can always make more money, you can't always make more time. Maybe call or email that person you’ve really been meaning to spend some time with, but life got busy and it never happened.
Maybe give the gift of forgiveness. How great a gift would that be for someone you’ve been carrying a grudge with for a long time? Forgiveness is setting the captive free only to discover the prisoner, was you! Maybe the gift you need to give (and receive) this Christmas is to mend a quarrel, bury an ax, or apologize for something you said or did. They’re waiting…
How about the gift of attention to someone just waiting to be noticed? Maybe put down your phone and actually look at the person in front of you. I’ll always remember this... Years ago around Christmas time, the Miller clan in our church (Vicki, and daughters Laura & Dana), were serving in our toddler’s class one Sunday and noticed one child who was having a very difficult time transitioning from mom to class. Here’s the part I love!
Mom said, “Does anyone speak Spanish here? That’s what I speak with him in our home.” Team Miller jumped into action during the week to learn some simple words in Spanish and came back prepared to connect with the unhappy toddler the next weekend. The team greeted him in Spanish and cooed simple Spanish phrases as they held him. Now that’s Feliz Navidad! And it’s the church working right!
It’s also giving the exact gift God gave us in the person of Jesus. He came and dwelt among us, learned our language, and became a bridge so we could hear and feel his heart.
Of course, we have multiple opportunities to give physical things, too, this time of year... for our Toy Store… for our Christmas Eve Offering later in December…
If you trace all the characters of the Christmas story, you will see they ALL gave. Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and Mary. Mary didn't know whether to give Jesus milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was hungry and holy. All because God the Father gave.
And Matthew 2:12 says… “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” You always do if you’ve truly met Jesus! Sure, they went back by a different geographical route, but they also were followers of another way in the spiritual sense. They left the house as different wise men. That’s true of everyone who authentically worships Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17 reads: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" This is true of so many of you and why Whitewater is such a special place!
Scripture is silent about what became of the Magi after their visit, but I am personally confident that the God who led them to where he was by a special star and warned them about the treachery of Herod in a dream, also saw to it that they had enough truth to be brought into a full relationship with Christ.
So, they went their way, full of wonder traveling with a memory that would last a lifetime! The good news of Advent is not that we are faithful in our waiting (because we often aren’t) but that God is faithful in his coming.
I mentioned the three gifts the Magi gave. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, which they used to anoint or embalm the dead. I wanted to mention one other thing about Myrrh from back then.
When myrrh was mixed with wine, it had an anesthetic effect. When people were being crucified, to dull the excruciating pain, they were offered a myrrh and wine/vinegar mixture – which Jesus was offered and then refused, so he experienced the full effect of pain and sin.
The gift of myrrh given by these kings foreshadowed Jesus’ suffering and death 33 years later as the True King of kings!